Get the Word! Podcast Episode: Gaslighting

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Hi, everyone. It’s Mike. I’m going to talk today about the word gaslight. The term, as a verb, as an action, is no laughing matter, so I’m not going to joke around much in today’s episode. Gaslighting is very real and many have gone through it. Unfortunately, it’s often hard to know that it is happening to you. It is a form of manipulation through psychological means whereby the abuser convinces the victim into questioning their own sanity. Its motivation often centers around harmful and unethical power dynamics and is a means of controlling another human being.

Many have heard this term before, but did you know that the term comes from a popular work of fiction from not that long ago in the grand scheme of things?

Let’s go back first to the first recorded evidence of this term existing.

As a noun, ‘gaslight’ refers to, simply, a gas lamp, as a light source. It can also refer to the light that is produced by the gas lamp. For example, ’they were only lit by gaslight. It really set the mood’. You’d be hard pressed to find this term being used before the turn of the 19th century. That’s because it wasn’t around. Sure, humans had figured out that coal gas is flammable well before the turn of the 19th century, but its use as a lighting source wouldn’t come until roughly about the year 1792. In that year, a man named William Murdoch became one of the first, if not the first, person to pump coal gas through a system of pipes into his home as a source of light. It wouldn’t take long before the use of gas light exploded. Okay, maybe that’s a bad choice of words. It wasn’t the safest thing in the world.

Soon after Murdoch’s successful application of gas light, we started to see its use all over the place. In 1798 Murdoch used gas to light the main building of his workplace, the Soho Foundry in Smethwick, England. By 1807 streets in London began to be illuminated by gas lamps on the streets. It was the job of hired lamp lighters to make sure to allow just the right amount of gas to come through the pipe into the lamp or otherwise it would explode!

So there’s the earliest history. One source gives us the year of 1808 of the earliest use of the word ‘gaslight’ in print.

Over 100 years later, 130 to be precise, in 1938, the playwright Patrick Hamilton would release his play Gas Light to the world. The play is set in Victorian London and centers around a newly formed marriage between a husband and wife named Jack and Bella. Jack is convinced that some precious valuable jewels are being hidden in the apartment above theirs, the jewels having belonged to a wealthy woman who was murdered some years earlier. Jack starts leaving their flat every night to enter the vacant flat above theirs to search for these precious jewels.

Jack begins to deliberately and systematically convince Bella that she is losing her mind, seemingly in an effort to veer her off the trail of his pursuit of the jewels. Bella hears footsteps every night up above her but no one else seems to hear them. Also, every night, Bella notices that the gaslit lamp in her bedroom dims at around the same time of hearing the footsteps. That is, of course, because Jack is above her and has just turned on a gaslight to be able to see what he is doing. Jack of course denies these things, and manipulates Bella in other ways as well, until she questions her own sanity and reality. Therefore, he is gaslighting her.

Don’t worry though. Jack is apprehended at the end of the story and Bella is able to realize that she was being gaslit. Of course, that’s not what it was called at the time. The term applied to psychology wouldn’t come for several more decades.

Gas Light premiered in London in 1938, and ran until 1939 with a total of 141 performances. The production would reach Broadway in NY by 1941. Renamed Angel Street for Broadway, the original cast featured Judith Evelyn as the female lead and Vincent Price as the main despicable male lead of the story. I personally am a big fan of Vincent Price, and would have given my right arm to have seen this original cast perform back in 1941. Where’s a time machine when you need one? Patience, Mike. They’re coming. Just give it time.

The film adaptations came early. There would end up being a British film version released in 1940 entitled Gaslight and then the inarguably more enduring American version also called Gaslight released just four years after the British version. This 1944 film stars the incomparable Ingrid Bergman and was directed by George Cukor. It also features a great performance by Joseph Cotton as the detective who finally figures out what is happening to Bergman’s character, and the appearance of a very young Angela Lansbury in her film debut, who, by the way, was nominated for an Oscar for her performance. Pretty impressive for a film debut performance at the age of 19.

Having seen this great film a few times myself, but having only read the synopsis of the play version, it does seem to follow more or less the same storyline. However, in the 1944 film the upstairs is an attic space, not its own separate apartment.

So there you have it. The play and the films popularized this manipulation tactic, but, of course, the use of this manipulation tactic far predates the emergence of the term used to describe it.

Merriam Webster gives the year of 1956 as the year in which we would see this term pop up as a verb.

After the break we’ll look at some examples of gaslighting beyond the confines of a romantic partnership, and we’ll open up the Fact Cabinet. Don’t go away.

— Break —

I’d like to point out a few other forms of gaslighting that I learned about from an article written by Jennifer Huizen (HIGH-zen), medically reviewed for accuracy by Dr. Marney A. White from the sight Medical News Today. I will have the link to the page in the show notes.

Aside from intimate partner relationships, we can see forms of gaslighting being applied in other situations as well.

Let’s start with child-parent relationships. A caregiver may use gaslighting techniques to shame or control children under their care. Given examples of this behavior are: accusing the child of being too sensitive or accusing them of misremembering events from when they were younger.

Medical gaslighting has been observed as well, citing research from the CPTSD Foundation, we are told that when medical professionals dismiss or trivialize a persons health concerns that they are, knowingly or unknowingly, carrying out an act of gaslighting. For example, a doctor telling their patient their symptoms are all “in their head”.

Racial gaslighting can occur within societies, which can lead to members of minority groups within a society feeling marginalized and unequal members of said society. An example given in the article mentioned above includes the tactic of denying that a specific group experiences discrimination in spite of plenty of evidence pointing to the contrary.

Political gaslighting occurs when our political leaders deny and lie about and manipulate the truth, and use their position of power to confuse the public into believing their lies. Discrediting long trusted sources of information without evidence is a form of political gaslighting.

This last one ties into workplace abuse, a topic which I feel is often overlooked or denied. Institutional gaslighting includes an organization or company denying or hiding information, lying to employees about their rights or going after whistle-blowers who are trying to reveal to the public problems within the institution, with techniques like trying to portray whistle blowers as mentally ill.

If you want to learn more about gaslighting, or believe you may be in a relationship right now with someone who is gaslighting you, then I highly encourage you to visit the National Domestic Violence Hotline website, which I’ll have a link to in the show notes ( https://www.thehotline.org/resources/what-is-gaslighting/ ) for more information and what to look out for. They can also be reached, at least if you’re in the USA, by calling 1-800-799-SAFE, that’s 1-800-799-7233 or by texting ‘START’ to 88788. You can also open up a private window in your browser and chat with somebody directly on their website if you feel your actions are being monitored by your abuser. This was the reason why I didn’t hear from a friend of mine for years. Her abuser prevented her from contacting me.

It is important to note that aside from intentional gaslighting for the purpose of controlling others on a conscious level, there is also a form of gaslighting in which the abuser is not consciously aware of their own actions. This may stem from a diagnosable mental disorder or childhood experiences and trauma. If you suspect that you may be the person in the relationship that is using gaslighting techniques with your partner, know that you can control and change your behavior. There are people out there who can help you, and want to help. Psychology Today is a great resource that I’ve used before to find therapists.

I’ll also link to a recent podcast series called Gaslight which I’ve heard is fantastic, which is a modern take on the story of intimate relationship gaslighting.

— Fact Cabinet —

I have a few items in the fact cabinet that you all might find interesting. Here’s an original Broadway playbill for the Lyceum Theatre production of Angel Street, the Gaslight adaptation I mentioned in the first half of the episode. One of my most prized possessions. Here’s an interesting story taken from Victoria Price’s written account of her father Vincent Price’s life. According to Victoria, her father and the lead female role of Angel Street, Judith Evelyn, ended the production on bad terms, with Evelyn going as far as to describe their relationship in a letter written to Price in 1943 as Price taking a ‘violent dislike’ to her by the end of the production. She also described the ordeal of her playing the lead role as a ‘ghastly nightmare’. It makes you wonder if playing such a vile monster on stage seeped into Price and manifested itself in his behavior toward the actress. Not that it is in any way a fair excuse.

I’d like to read a little bit more from this letter written to Vincent Price from Judith Evelyn. Note that Mr. Manningham is Price’s character in the play, the gaslighter: “As far as I am concerned, you and I never gave a performance worth a damn from the moment you began thinking of Mr. Manningham as a sole creation of the part of Vincent Price — irrespective of and oblivious to any intermingling thoughts and actions between the two characters. A real artistic achievement is only possible between two people when they are friendly enough to discuss a scene without rancor and in an honest endeavor to help one another — not hinder.”

Playbill from the 1975 revival of Angel Street

Evelyn did not keep her thoughts private. A “barrage of criticism” followed in the wake of this production against Vincent Price. According to his daughter, it seemed to have quite an effect on him, and from that time forward it appears he worked hard to “…(develop) a reputation as the soul of consideration to his costars”.

Okay, here’s a larger item in the fact cabinet. My loyal listeners will remember that my collection includes some fine classic automobiles. Here’s a rare one for you. It’s a 1960 Gaslight Automobile, manufactured in Detroit, Michigan USA by the Gaslight Motors Corporation, which lasted from only 1960 to 1961. It is a replica of a much older vehicle, the 1902 Rambler. Why anyone back in the 60s would want a replica of such a primitive automobile is beyond me. It is built on a 77in wheelbase and weighs a mere 640 pounds. This beast is powered by a then-modern air-cooled, single-cylinder engine of 4hp. The price at the time was $1,495. That’s amazing. My handy dandy inflation calculator tells me that $1,495 in 1960 dollars is roughly USD$13,788.50 today. That seems impractical. Perhaps that’s why the company only lasted a year.  Luckily I won mine in a wager, amongst some fellow podcasters, to see which of us could come out with the nerdiest topics for episodes. My recent episodes on gumshoe and groovy put me over the top for the win. Let’s see if we can start it up, shall we? Hopefully I’ll have better luck than with my 1961 Vauxhall Cresta I tried to start up in the ska episode. — engine — Well, it’s not like I’m going to many places on modern roads anyway with a 4 hp engine.

1902 Rambler Runabout


Before we end today, I’d like to share a message left for the podcast. The audio is a bit hard to understand but I really appreciate the gesture and support so I’m going to play it anyway. (— clip — I swear I’m not playing this through my old Victrola!) Thank you so much my garbled friend. I don’t know what went wrong, but I hope you hear this and could maybe attempt another one, or write in to the podcast: getthewordpodcast@gmail.com

You can leave a message for the podcast by going to the English Sessions website, www.englishsessionswithmike.com or by going to our Anchor.fm page, anchor.fm/get-the-word where you can also make a donation to the podcast to keep this thing going! Thanks for all your support, everyone.

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Show Notes:

Podcast Gaslight: https://qcodemedia.com/gaslight

https://www.etymonline.com/search?q=gaslight

http://www.historyoflamps.com/lamp-history/history-of-gas-lamps/

Gaslight Listing: tcm.com

https://www.google.com/books/edition/The_Complete_Encyclopedia_of_Motorcars_1/9coQAQAAMAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&bsq=gaslight

National Domestic Violence Hotline: https://www.thehotline.org/resources/what-is-gaslighting/

THE MURDER IN THORNTON SQUARE | British Board of Film Classification from www.bbfc.co.uk

https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/here-there-and-everywhere/201701/are-gaslighters-aware-what-they-do

https://books.google.com/books?id=mTJnDwAAQBAJ&pg=PA111&lpg=PA111&dq=angel+street+evelyn+vincent+price+violent+dislike&source=bl&ots=BxDawYxWjX&sig=ACfU3U1pEn-f31wQe94XqRZMLiX84MNJFQ&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwir4ei6k8PyAhXQU80KHQcfBOwQ6AF6BAgWEAM#v=onepage&q&f=false

https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/gaslighting

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/gaslight

"gaslight". Oxford English Dictionary (Online ed.). Oxford University Press.

https://www.usinflationcalculator.com/

https://www.thehotline.org/resources/what-is-gaslighting/

https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/gaslighting#gaslighting-examples

https://live.staticflickr.com/646/31774667095_31ab2f7540_b.jpg

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Music performed by Monroeville Music Center: https://monroevillemusiccenter.bandcamp.com/track/the-perfect-planet

And Kevin Macleod https://freemusicarchive.org/music/Kevin_MacLeod/Jazz_Sampler/Faster_Does_It_1271

Artwork for Get the Word! created by Bruno Sanches: https://brunofsanches.myportfolio.com/

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